Judge won't lift 50-person cap on church services

RENO — A federal judge rejected a Dayton church's request Friday for an emergency injunction that would allow it to exceed Gov. Steve Sisolak's 50-person cap on religious gatherings.

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley filed a lawsuit against the governor last week that argued the previous ban on religious gatherings of more than 10 people was unconstitutional.

Sisolak raised the limit to 50 people under strict social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus when he announced this week the reopening of several business categories previously considered non-essential. That cleared the way for casinos to open June 4 for the first time since mid-March.

Leaders of the Christian church in Dayton said the new limit still violates their religious freedoms protected under the First Amendment.

They said in motions seeking an emergency court order late Thursday and again Friday they should be held to the same standard as a host of businesses now allowed to operate at 50% of capacity — not a 50-person cap — including restaurants, bars, gyms, pawn shops and tattoo parlors.

"The state is not pursuing its purposed interest evenhandedly, favoring secular businesses and activities over religious services," their lawyers wrote. "There is no good reason — let alone a constitutional one — for this disparate treatment."

Church leaders said they would not comply with the 50-person limit and instead follow the 50% capacity guideline by holding two services for the first time in 10 weeks celebrating the Christian holiday of Pentecost on Sunday. They said about 90 parishioners would be at each service at the church that typically holds 200.

"Remarkably, the state trusts its residents to socially distance and follow general health and safety guidelines while gathering on a daily basis for similar secular activities, but it does not trust them to do once or twice a week if they are assembling for religious purposes," the motion said.

They said Pentecost is an especially significant day for the church.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said in denying an emergency court order Friday that she has "no doubt as to the significance of Pentecost Sunday" to the church and its members' "sincerely held religious convictions." But she said they had failed to demonstrate "the diligence required to warrant emergency relief."

She said the church filed its initial lawsuit May 22 challenging the 10-person cap on gatherings the governor imposed on April 8, then waited until late Thursday to file its first motion seeking an emergency injunction.

"Waiting until one business day before Pentecost Sunday to ask for emergency relief is simply unreasonable," she said.

Du ordered the state to respond to the lawsuit by Tuesday. She said she'd likely schedule a telephone hearing on Thursday.

Aides to the governor and Attorney General Aaron Ford declined comment on Friday.


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